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It is proposed in the present study to bring together into one 
sketch the facts relating to the development of that extra-constitu- 
tional institution which was the cradle of the organization of Ameri- 
can parties. There were formed and fixed those characteristics, 
which, notwithstanding the profound changes wrought by subse- 
quent growth, were destined permanently to distinguish the political 
life of America, which runs through the mould of party organiza- 
tion. Thus my purpose is to reconstruct a page of institutional 
history. By saying this I am at once defining the exact significa- 
tion of the word caucus, that at least which comes under the grasp 
of the historian, as opposed to the somewhat loose acceptations in 
which the term is currently employed. Writers often, in referring 
to the caucus, quote John Adams as follows : " Our revolution was 
effected by caucuses. The federal constitution was formed by cau- 
cuses, and the federal administrations, for twenty years, have been 
supported or subverted by caucuses. There is little more of the 
kind now than there was twenty years ago. Alexander Hamilton 
was the greatest organist that ever played upon this instrument." 
After having recalled the intrigues to which Hamilton lent himself 
against him (Adams) and the cabals which took place over the 
presidential elections, he adds : " This detail sufficiently shows that 
caucuses have been from the beginning. There is, no doubt, some 
regard to public good in the prosecution of these measures. They 
are considered as necessary. There is also ambition, avarice, envy, 
jealousy and revenge. As these causes, good and bad, have hitherto 
produced such combinations, and as these causes will continue to 
the end of the world, we may presume the combinations will con- 
tinue too. . . . You cannot prevent them any more than you can 
prevent gentlemen from conversing at their lodgings." These lines, 
written in 1808, 1 when the nominating caucus was not yet fully 
developed, have, as a matter of fact, no bearing upon and no con- 

1 In the " Review of Propositions for Amending the Constitution, submitted by Mr. 
Hillhouse to the Senate of the United States," and found in the papers of John Adams 
( Works, Vol. VI.). 

254 M. Ostrogorski 

nection with it. Adams was only speaking of the secret under- 
standings, the political meetings, often tainted with intrigue, the 
cabals. Used in this sense the caucus indeed presents nothing 
either novel or specific. The historian who should turn his investi- 
gations in this direction might as well undertake to write the history 
of human deceit or of human spite. One would not have to begin 
with the time of the Revolution ; one could trace the origin of the 
caucus to a date far anterior. To be precise, the beginning would 
have to be carried back to the garden of Eden, where the first cau- 
cus was held by Eve and the serpent. 

But the more or less secret political confabulations which were 
first designated by the term caucus, constitute in no way the essen- 
tial nor even necessary characteristic of those more or less repre- 
sentative meetings whose object is to decide on behalf of the com- 
munity upon questions relating to public affairs, and, in particular, 
to elective appointments. Those meetings, to which the earlier 
term caucus was transferred because they had been inaugurated be- 
hind the scenes, have two distinctive characteristics : the first is the 
quasi-representative character which they, rightly or wrongly, as- 
sume, and which gives them, or seems to give them, the right to 
consider matters of general concern ; the second distinguishing 
characteristic is the sanction attached to their decisions, which, once 
given, arc co ipso considered as binding not only on those present, 
not excepting the minority who have contested their passage, but 
on all those whom the meeting is supposed to represent. This 
sanction has indeed no legal authority, but the universal acquies- 
cence gives it a weight not less grave ; it has become a part of the 
public conscience of that particular political society who form the 
United States. If this character of the caucus establishes the juris- 
diction of the historian over it, it equally affords an indication and 
almost points out his path to the public man or at least to the 
public-spirited man preoccupied with the working of the political 
system and its difficulties and shortcomings, — to the reformer, as 
the phrase goes. If the authority of the caucus, and in particular, 
its binding power which acquires a lien upon the conscience of the 
individual citizen, to the point of depriving him of the full exercise 
of his rights as an elector, is but the result of a public opinion 
which shapes and unshapes itself through the action of divers in- 
fluences, in the progress of time — if, in a word, it is but the effect 
of a certain phase of the evolution of political society, nothing for- 
bids the reformer, and it may be that many considerations com- 
mand him, to strive to give a new direction to public opinion, with- 
out allowing himself to be checked by fatalistic arguments derived 
from " human nature." 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 255 

For this twofold reason the history of the nominating caucus 
cannot fail to interest the historian as well as the politician. In pre- 
senting it to the readers of this Review, I make no pretension to 
bring out new facts ; my ambition will have been realized if I have 
grouped and connected the facts with more method than has, on 
certain points, been done hitherto. 


With the development of parties during Washington's adminis- 
tration, the system of formal nominations of the candidates of 
parties for elective offices also developed, but the integration, from 
within the parties, of permanent organizations which should serve 
as regular nominating bodies was somewhat slow. Indeed at the 
outset the parties had no need of a rigid structure, for the reason 
that the number of voters was generally limited by the qualifica- 
tions for the franchise, that the elective offices were not numerous, 
and finally because in American society, especially in New Eng- 
land, there was still a ruling class, that is to say, groups of men 
who, owing to their character, their wealth, and their social posi- 
tion, commanded the confidence of their fellow-citizens and made 
them accept their leadership without a murmur. The candidates 
were nominated in town meetings or county meetings, but in reality 
these general gatherings simply ratified selections made beforehand 
by the small coteries of leaders in their private caucuses. In Penn- 
sylvania, where the strife of factions was particularly keen, a rough 
outline of an elective organization of parties appeared sooner than 
elsewhere, but for a considerable time it proceeded by uncertain and 
unconnected spurts in which it would be difficult to discover a 
regular evolution. We do find at a pretty early stage traces of 
meetings composed of delegates who were supposed, more or less 
rightly, to have been chosen by their respective townships ; but 
more often these county meetings, where candidatures were adopted, 
were mass meetings open to all, in which the people of the neighbor- 
hood were numerous, while the inhabitants of the more remote lo- 
calities were barely represented. To nominate candidates for elective 
offices which went beyond the limits of the county, the views of 
the inhabitants of various counties were often ascertained by means 
of a very extensive correspondence ; a number of circulars were 
despatched, and from the replies received a list was drawn up of 
the candidates who had received the most votes, and it was returned 
by the same channel for ratification by the counties. These consul- 
tations were led by a few public-spirited men with a taste for elec- 
tion work, who made themselves into a committee of correspond- 

256 M. Ostrogorski 

ence for the occasion. Side by side with this mode of proceeding 
another was also practised, which consisted in making the nomi- 
nation of the candidates for the senate of the state or for the Federal 
Congress in conferences of representatives of various counties (" con- 
ferees," "electors"), appointed for this purpose in county meetings, 
and of submitting the selections to the ratification of the general 
county meetings, which, as in the primitive democracies, theoreti- 
cally retained their full powers. The practice of delegation gained 
ground, however, and in the first years of this century it seems to 
have been already fairly common in the counties. There were a 
few isolated attempts, the first of which even goes back to the year 
1788, 1 to bring together delegates from the whole state for nomi- 
nating candidates for Congress or for the electoral college entrusted 
with the election of the President and Vice-President of the United 

But all these meetings of delegates were composed in an any- 
thing but regular way ; too often the representation of different 
localities was neither complete nor direct. The decisions taken in 
them, however, were not binding, so to speak, on any one ; at one 
time it was the leaders who, of their own authority, made modifica- 
tions in the settled lists of candidates, according to the requirements 
of the electoral situation, at another the local voters recast the 
"ticket" as they thought proper; the distinction of parties even 
was not always observed, and mixed lists were made up. The can- 
didates, in their turn, did not consider themselves bound by the 
nominations made, and often the competitors for elective offices who 
had not been accepted went on with their candidature just the same ; 
they offered themselves directly to the electorate. This method of 
"self-nomination," very common in Pennsylvania down to the first 
years of this century, was still more so in other states, in Massachu- 
setts, for instance. 

It is not, therefore, these primitive conventions of delegates which 
were themselves without organization — created anew as they were 
in each special case and for the special occasion only, by the initia- 
tive of a private caucus, of a knot of politicians who bethought them- 
selves to call such an assemblage, or by a public meeting of some 
town which invited its neighbors to send delegates to a common 
rendezvous — it is not these short-lived conventions that furnished a 
fixed form to the parties in their extra-constitutional existence, in 

1 Two more instances are perhaps to be found in Pennsylvania, during the twenty- 
five or thirty years after 1788, to wit, in 1792 and 1812. For the facts relating to these 
conventions and for the other antecedents of the organization of parties in Pennsylvania, 
see " Nominating Conventions in Pennsylvania," by J. S. Walton, The American His- 
torical Review, January, 1897. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 257 

which nomination to office was becoming the most important func- 
tion. The extra-constitutional organization of the American parties 
started in a borrowed sphere, belonging to the constitutional struc- 
ture, namely in the state legislatures and then in the Congress of the 
United States. 

For the elective offices bestowed in each state by the whole 
body of its voters, such as the posts of governor and lieutenant- 
governor or the functions of presidential electors, the necessity of a 
preliminary understanding as to the candidates was still greater than 
for the smaller territorial units, and it could only be suitably effected 
in a single meeting for the whole state. But to organize such gen- 
eral meetings of representatives of all the localities in a regular way 
was by no means easy in ordinary times, both on account of the 
means of communication in those days, which made a journey to 
the capital of the state a formidable and almost hazardous under- 
taking, and of the difficulty of finding men of leisure willing to 
leave their homes for the discharge of a temporary duty. How- 
ever, men enjoying the confidence of the voters of the state were 
already assembled in the capital in pursuance of their functions of 
members of the legislature. Were they not in the best position for 
bringing before their constituents the names of the candidates who 
could command the most votes in the state ? This reflection occurred 
to the public, and in particular to the members of the state legisla- 
tures themselves, and they laid hands on the nomination of the 
candidates to the state offices. The members of both houses be- 
longing to the same party met semi-officially, generally in the leg- 
islative building itself, made their selections and communicated them 
to the voters by means of a proclamation, which they signed in- 
dividually. Sometimes other signatures of well-known citizens who 
happened to be in the capital at that moment were added, to give 
more weight to the recommendation of the legislators. To make 
it more sure of prevailing, the latter soon adopted the system of 
corresponding committees, which devoted their energies throughout 
the state to the success of the list. 

This practice of recommending candidates for the state, which 
rapidly became general in the whole Union, began very early. The 
first instance seems to be found in the state of Rhode Island in 1790, 
when the governor and lieutenant-governor were recommended in 
this way. 1 In the same year the rival parties nominated in a similar 
manner their candidates to the post of governor in Pennsylvania, in 

1 The Development of the A T ominating Convention in Rhode Island, by Neil An- 
drews, jr. , in Publications of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Vol. I., Providence, 

258 M. Ostrogorski 

joint meetings of the members of parties in the legislature and the 
constitutional convention, which was convoked at that time to give 
a new constitution to the state. In 1 793 we find the members of 
the legislature making the nomination of the governor by them- 
selves. 1 In 1795 the state of New York adopts this method to 
propose John Jay as governor. 2 After 1796 it appears as a settled 
practice in all the states. And in this way is introduced, for the 
first time, a permanent party organization, nestling under the wing 
of the legislatures and composed of their very elements. It rises 
above the more or less fortuitous town and county meetings, in 
which choice is made, either directly or in the second instance, of 
candidates for local elective offices, and in this respect it presents a 
somewhat striking analogy with the incipient organization of the 
revolutionary epoch, in which side by side with the corresponding 
committees of towns formed by the people, on the model of Boston, 
there were established in the various colonies, on the more aristo- 
cratic plan of Virginia, committees of correspondence appointed by 
the colonial assembly. The semi-official control of the selection 
of candidates for the higher offices assumed by the members of the 
state legislatures, was undoubtedly also tainted with " aristocratism," 
but the electoral body acquiesced in it with a fairly good grace. 
The legislature, after all, represented the most important elements 
of that body ; it had a plentiful share of the men of the old " ruling 
class" who were still regarded as the natural leaders of society, 
and by the side of them an ever-growing proportion of young 
politicians thrown up by the democratic leaven which was continu- 
ously agitating the country. The action of these men seemed to 
offer more guarantees for a satisfactory choice and to present more 
respectability than the mass-meetings, or, as some thought, mob- 
meetings, in which candidates were selected for the other offices. 
The private character of the semi-official meetings in question held 
by the members of legislatures got them the nickname of " caucus," 
by analogy with the secret gatherings of the caucus started at Bos- 
ton before the Revolution. The name of "legislative caucus" be- 
came their formal title in all the states. Besides the candidates for 
the offices of governor and lieutenant-governor, the legislative caucus 
also nominated the presidential electors, in cases where they were 
appointed by the people. 3 But the nomination of candidates for the 

1 J. S. Walton, Nominating Conventions in Pennsylvania. 

2 J. D. Hammond, The History of Political Parties in the State of New York, Al- 
bany, 1842, I. 90. 

3 It will be remembered that the legislatures of several of the states, availing themselves 
of that clause of the Constitution which left to the states the determination of the method by 
which the electors should be chosen, assumed to themselves the privilege of naming the 
electors in legislative session. In other states the legislatures confided it to the people. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 259 

functions of electors soon lost its importance, for in the meanwhile 
there had arisen within the Federal Congress a caucus which, like 
the legislative caucuses of the states, took in hand the nomination 
of candidates for the presidency and the vice -presidency and entered 
on a course in which the power conferred on the electors was des- 
tined to disappear. 


In the first two presidential elections the choice of candidates 
was, one may say, a foregone conclusion. The contest did not be- 
gin until the retirement of Washington. Elected in 1796, in spite 
of some intrigues within the ranks of the Federalists themselves, 
John Adams saw, as the election of 1800 approached, a stronger 
opposition raise itself against him. The lack of unanimity within 
the Federalist camp, aggravated by the confusion which was caused 
by the death of Washington, seriously compromised the chances of 
the Federalist party. The imminent danger of the success of Jef- 
ferson and the triumph of radicalism in the government appeared to 
the Federalists of the Congress to demand their intervention in the 
presidential election, from which the Constitution had carefully ban- 
ished them. For some time past the Federalist members of the 
Congress, and the Senators in the first place, had been in the habit 
of holding semi-official meetings, to which the familiar name of cau- 
cus was applied, to settle their line of conduct beforehand on the 
most important questions coming before Congress. 1 The decisions 

1 According to the opinion generally received, these caucuses of the members of 
Congress appeared for the first time at the second session of the Eighth Congress. This 
date, which was given by Williams in his Statesman' .« Manual (I. 224) and has been 
accepted by later writers, among others by Professor Woodrow Wilson in his remarkable 
and fascinating work on Congressional Government (p. 328), should probably be rejected 
as too late. James McIIenry, John Adams's war secretary, in a letter to his nephew, John 
McHenry, of May 20, 1800, explaining the circumstances in which it was decided to 
run Adams and Charles C. Pinckney for President without giving one a preference over 
the other, says : " The federal members of Congress held a caucus, as it is called, in 
which with very few exceptions it was determined" . . . (Memoirs of the Administra- 
tions of Washington and John Adams, by George Gibbs, II. 347). The very words as 
it is ca lied show clearly that the caucus meeting referred to was not the first of its kind, 
that it was already an established practice described by a fixed term. Consequently 
caucuses of members of Congress had already been held at the first session of the Sixth 
Congress. Again the revelations or rather denunciations of Duane in the Aurora against 
caucuses give very definite indications that this practice originated still earlier : in the 
first session of the Fifth Congress. See the Aurora of February 12, February 15, and 
especially of February 19, 1800, where we find the following lines apropos of the Ross 
bill which had been discussed in caucus : " We noticed a few days ago the Caucuses 
(or secret consultations) held in the Senate Chamber . . . they were in the perfect 
spirit of a Jacobinical conclave . . . On this occasion it may not be impertinent to in- 
troduce an anecdote which will illustrate the nature of caucuses and show that our pop- 
ular government may, in the hands of a faction, be as completely abused as the F'rench 

260 M. Ostrogorski 

arrived at by the majority of the members present were considered 
as in honor binding the minority ; being consequently clothed with 
a moral sanction, they gave these confabulations an equitable basis 
and almost a legal authority. In this way there grew up at an 
early stage, at the very seat of Congress, an extra-constitutional in- 
stitution which prejudged and anticipated its acts. It was now 
about to reach out still further and lay hold of a matter which was 
entirely beyond the competence of Congress. It appears that this 
was done at the instigation of Hamilton, who, being anxious to push 
Adams on one side and to prevent the election of Jefferson, wanted 
to get the electoral manoeuvre which he had hit upon for this pur- 
pose' sanctioned by a formal decision of the members of the party 
in Congress. 2 The latter took the decision, nominated in conse- 
quence the candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency of the 
Union, and agreed to try and get them accepted by the electors. 3 
This nomination became the precedent for a practice which corn- 
constitution has been by the self-created consuls. In the summer of 1798 ... a 
caucus was held in the house of Mr. Bingham, in this city" (;'. e., Philadelphia); 
"it was composed of the members of the Senate, and there were present 17 mem- 
bers" (which would make more than half of the members of the Senate) . . . "Prior 
to the deliberations on the measures of war, navy, army, democratic proscription, 
etc., etc., it was proposed and agreed to that all the members present should sol- 
emnly pledge themselves to act firmly upon the measures to be agreed upon by the 
majority of the persons present at the caucus." The caucus was found to be divided 
into two factions, nine against eight. " This majority, however, held the minority to their 
engagement, and the whole seventeen voted in Senate upon all the measures discussed at 
the Caucus. Thus it is seen that a secret self-appointed meeting of seventeen persons 
dictated laws to the United States, and not only that nine of that seventeen had the full 
command and power over the consciences and votes of the other eight, but that nine 
possessed, by the turpitude of the eight, actually all the power which the Constitution 
declares shall be invested in the majority only." 

It appears probable, however, that even this date, which would refer to the first 
session of the Fifth Congress, is still too late. Senator Smith, of Maryland, when de- 
fending the caucus against the attacks of its enemies in the Senate, March 18, 1824, and 
endeavoring to show that the practice had the authority of early precedent, said that he 
" believed the first embargo was agreed upon in caucus " {Annals of Congress, Eight- 
eenth Congress, first session, I. 363). If the Senator from Maryland was speaking of 
the embargo of 1794, the caucus in question must have taken place in the first session of 
the Third Congress. 

1 According to the mode of voting then in force, the electors voted for two persons as 
President and Vice-President, without specifying which of the two they chose for Presi- 
dent and which for Vice-President : the one who obtained the greatest number of votes 
became President. Hamilton's plan consisted in associating a second popular can- 
didate (Pinckney) with Adams, and in recommending the electors, in order not to scatter 
their votes, to give both candidates an equal number of votes, in the hope that Adams, 
being one or two votes short, would be beaten by his colleague. 

2 Cf. Hamilton's letter to T. Sedgwick of May 4, 1800 ( The Works of Alexander 
Hamilton, ed. by J. C. Hamilton, New York, 1856, VI. 436). 

3 Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams, by Geo. Gibbs, 
I'- 347 ; The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, New York, 1896, III. 238, 240. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 261 

pletely destroyed the whole scheme of the provisions of the Con- 
stitution for the election of the President. The electoral device 
adopted by the Federalist caucus became known through a private 
letter from one of its members to his constituents ; the caucus took 
care not to give it out in its own name, it wrapped all its proceed- 
ings in profound secrecy. And when W. Duane denounced them 
in the passage just quoted from his paper Aurora, and attacked the 
practice of caucuses, the "Jacobinical conclave," he was called be- 
fore the bar of the Senate for his " false, defamatory, scandalous 
and malicious " assertions, and barely managed to escape from the 
formal proceedings which had been taken against him. In the 
Anti- Federalist press of Boston a violent protest was also made 
against the " arrogance of a number of the Congress to assemble in 
an electioneering caucus to control the citizens in their constitu- 
tional rights." 1 But this did not prevent the Republicans them- 
selves, the Anti- Federalist members of Congress, from holding a 
caucus, also secret, for the nomination of candidates to the two 
highest executive offices of the Union ; they had only to concern 
themselves with the vice-presidency, however, since Jefferson's 
canditature for the first of these posts was a foregone conclusion. 2 
It seems that Madison, the future President of the United States, 
took the leading part in this caucus. 3 

At the next presidential election, in 1804, the Congressional 
Caucus reappeared, but on this occasion it no longer observed 
secrecy. The Republican members of Congress met publicly and 
settled the candidatures with all the formalities of deliberative as- 
semblies, as if they were acting in pursuance of their mandate. 
The Federalists, who were almost annihilated as a party since Jeffer- 
son's victory in 1801, gave up holding caucuses altogether. Hence- 
forth there met only a Republican congressional caucus, which 
appeared on the scene eveiy four years at the approach of the presi- 
dential election. To strengthen its action in the country it provided 
itself (in 18 12) with a special organ in the form of a corresponding 
committee, in which each state was represented by a member, and 

1 The author of this attack, signed " Old South " (the pseudonym of Benjamin Aus- 
tin, a well-known Republican writer), gives us on this occasion a good specimen of the 
style of the times. Addressing a Federalist writer who has given the news of the Fed- 
eralist caucus, he reproaches him in these terms : " What ! Decius ! are you daring enough 
to arrest the votes of Americans by telling them that their servants in Congress have al- 
ready decided the choice ? Are you so abandoned as to stab the Constitution to its vitals 
by checking the free exercise of the people in their suffrage ? If you are thus desperate 
..." etc. (quoted in Niles's Weekly Register, Baltimore, XXVI. 178). 

"Niles, XXVII. 66. 

3 Cf. Annals of Congress, sitting of the Senate, March 18, 1824, speech by Smith of 

262 M. Ostrogorski 

which saw that the decisions of the caucus were respected. Some- 
times the state caucuses intervened in the nomination of candidates 
for the presidency of the republic ; they proposed names, but in 
any event the Congressional Caucus always had the last word. 
Thus in 1 808, with two powerful competitors for the succession to 
Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, both put forward in the influential 
caucus of Virginia, the Congressional Caucus pronounced for Madi- 
son, while taking the formal precaution to declare that the persons 
present made this recommendation in their " private capacity of 
citizens." Several members of Congress, who did not want to have 
Madison, appealed to the country, protesting not only against the 
regularity of the procedure of the caucus, but against the institution 
of the caucus itself. 1 The caucus none the less won the day, the 
whole party in the country accepted its decision, and Madison was 

The same thing took place in 1 8 1 2 in spite of an attempted 
split in the state of New York, the legislature of which officially 
brought forward its illustrious statesman, De Witt Clinton, against 
Madison, who was seeking re-election. In vain did the legislature 
of New York, in a manifesto issued for the occasion, try to stir up 
local jealousies, by protesting against the habitual choice for- the 
presidency of citizens of the states of Virginia, against the perpetua- 
tion of the " Virginia dynasty" ; in vain did it raise up the bitter 
feeling of state sovereignty, by pointing out that the nomination of a 
candidate for the presidency by an association of members of Con- 
gress, convened at the seat of government, was hostile to the spirit 
of the Constitution, which intended the President to be elected not 
by the people of the United States, in the sense in which they may be 
said to choose the members of the House of Representatives, but 
by the states composing the Union in their separate sovereign capacities ; 
in vain did it appeal to democratic susceptibilities by denouncing the 
usurpation by the coterie of the Congressional Caucus of a right 
belonging to the people. 2 Madison was re-elected. In 18 16, when 
the caucus met again :i to choose a successor to Madison, Henry 
Clay brought in a motion declaring the nomination of the President 
in caucus inexpedient, but his proposal was rejected ; a similar reso- 
lution introduced by Taylor of New York shared the same fate. 

1 R. Hildreth, History of the United States, VI. 65. 

^Niles, III. IS. 

3 In this caucus not only the members of the Congress took part, but also the delegates 
from the territories of Indiana and Illinois. The last named retired, from considerations 
of propriety, that the members of the caucus might decide in his absence whether dele- 
gates should be permitted to vote. One must believe that the question was decided in the 
affirmative, since the delegate from Indiana is found among those voting. (Ibid., X. 59.) 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 263 

The caucus adopted the candidature of Monroe, who was Madison's 
favorite, just as this latter was in a way designated to the caucus by 
his predecessor Jefferson. The majority obtained by Monroe was 
but slight (65 votes to 54), but as soon as the result was announced 
Clay at once requested the assembly to make Monroe's nomination 
unanimous. 1 Such was the weight which the decision of the ma- 
jority of the caucus had with every member, it was considered bind- 
ing in honor on him as well as on every adherent of the party in the 
country who did not care to incur the reproach of political heresy, 
of apostasy. Under cover of these notions there arose in the Am- 
erican electorate the convention, nay, the dogma, of regular candi- 
datures, adopted in party councils, which alone have the right to 
court the popular suffrage. 2 Complying with this rule, the electors, 
who, according to the Constitution, were to be the unfettered com- 
missioners of the people in the choice of the chief magistrate, and 
to consult only their judgment and their conscience, simply registered 
the decision taken at Washington by the Congressional Caucus. 
The authority of the Congressional Caucus which got its recom- 
mendation accepted with this remarkable alacrity and made the 
"nomination" equivalent to the election, rested on two facts. On 
the one hand, there was the prestige attaching to the rank of the 
men who composed the caucus and to their personal position in the 
country. They represented in the capital of the Union the same 
social and political element, and in a still higher degree, which the 
members of the legislative caucus represented in the states, that is, 
the leadership of the natural chiefs, whose authority was still admit- 
ted and tacitly acknowledged. The elevation of Jefferson to the 
presidency, which it is the fashion to describe as the " political revo- 
lution of 1801," was in point of fact only the beginning of a new 
departure. Far from upsetting the old fabric at once, it installed 
democratic doctrines in governmental theories, but not in the man- 
ners of the nation ; and a quarter of a century will be needed, with 
the exceptional aid of events of a non-political character, to draw 
the practical conclusions from these doctrines and theories and make 
them part of the political habits of the people. 3 The latter still took 
its orders from the men who impressed it by their superiority and 
who naturally formed a somewhat exclusive and intimate circle. 

' Ibid. 

! Cf. the address of the legislature of New York already mentioned, Niles, III. 17; 
Matthew Carey, The Olive Branch, Philadelphia, 1818, Chap. 78, on the congressional 

3 Josiah Quincy, in the picture which he has left of Washington society in 1826, re- 
marks that " the glittering generalizations of the Declaration were never meant to be 
taken seriously. Gentlemen were the natural rulers of America after all" (Figures of 
the Past, Boston, 1883, p. 264). 
VOL. V. — 18 

264 M. Ostrogorski 

The members of the Congressional Caucus and the members of the 
legislative caucuses of the states, or, to use Hamilton's expression, 
"the leaders of the second class," 1 constituted in fact a sort of 
political family, and the latter spontaneously became the agents of 
the Congressional Caucus ; they were, in the language of a contem- 
porary, as " prefects " to it, 2 set in motion by a simple exchange of 
private letters. 

Again, the members of the caucus represented the force majeure 
of the interests of the Republican party, which enforced discipline, 
which compelled obedience to the word of command from whatever 
quarter it proceeded. It was necessary to defend at all costs the 
republic and liberty, both of which the Federalists were supposed 
to endanger. The Federalist party soon succumbed, but the recol- 
lection of the dangers, real or imaginary, to which liberty and 
equality were exposed by it, survived it, and for many a long day 
was a sort of bugbear which the leaders of the victorious party had 
no scruple about using for the consolidation of their power. To 
prevent the Federalists from returning to the charge, the Republi- 
cans had to carefully guard against divisions, and it was to avoid 
them, to concentrate all the forces of the party in the great fight for 
the presidency, that the Congressional Caucus obligingly offered its 

This system of intimidation was reinforced by an electoral 
method which made the minority absolutely powerless and gave 
the caucus an exceptional vantage-ground. 


The Constitution having left it to the states to settle the mode 
of appointment of the presidential electors, the states took the op- 
portunity to adopt a variety of systems ; here the state was divided 
into as many districts as there were electors to be appointed, and 
each district appointed its own ; there the citizens of the whole 
state voted for all the electors on a general ticket ; finally, in sev- 
eral states the legislatures took the choice of the electors into their 
own hands. The first system allowed either shade of political 
opinion its proper influence, whereas the two last, which soon spread 
over the greater part of the Union, ruthlessly stifled the voice of 
minorities, or even enabled a minority to usurp the rights of the 
majority. Even in states where the district system was in force, 
the majority laid out the districts in such an arbitrary and irregular 

1 Works, VI. 444, and passim. 
2 Niles, XXVII. 38. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 265 

way (gerrymandering') that they included very slight majorities of 
its adherents, side by side with very large minorities of its oppo- 
nents ; the districts were not always composed of adjoining terri- 
tories, nor was their representation equal ; one elected one repre- 
sentative, while another would elect two, three, or four. It was the 
eternal craving for domination which in American political society, 
the first formally based on right, on the legally expressed will of 
the majority, adapted itself to the new circumstances : deprived of 
the use of brute force, it set up, from the very beginning, majorities 
and minorities seeking to circumvent one another by devices of vote- 
counting. The divergent views on the Constitution and its inter- 
pretation, which broke out from this early date, gave the sanction 
of principles and convictions, often sincerely held, to these efforts 
to supplant the other side by expedients of electoral legerdemain ; 
styling itself here " Republican party," there " Federalist party," 
the majority or the pretended majority everywhere tried to annihi- 
late the minority in the name of the good cause. 

To the cause embodied in the "party " was added another pre- 
occupation connected with a political prejudice which was one of 
the most powerful factors in the organization of the new republic 
and in its early life. This was the jealousy of the small states 
anxious to assert their " sovereignty " against the large, rich and 
populous states. The Federal Constitution, it is true, adopted a com- 
promise which conciliated the small states by giving them represen- 
tation equal to that of the larger states in the federal Senate. But 
the House of Representatives was composed of members elected in 
the states on the basis of population, and there, as well as in the 
college of electors, large states and small states confronted each 
other again as such. The states, even the large ones, which fol- 
lowed the district system, which elected their representatives by 
districts where the majority belonged now to one party and now to 
the other, could not help returning a mixed set of members, di- 
vided against themselves, incapable of reflecting the individuality of 
the state, while the states that chose their members on a general 
ticket, which prevented the different opinions in the state from com- 
ing out with their due weight, secured a homogeneous and compact 
representation. This being the state of affairs, the pious solicitude 
for the autonomy of the state sanctified, in its turn, the party greed 
which used the general ticket as a weapon for overthrowing com- 
petitors ; it became a measure of self-preservation necessary for 
safeguarding the position of the state in the Union. For these 
reasons some states which originally adopted the district system 
abandoned it for the general ticket. Virginia set the example from 

266 M. Ostrogorski 

the year 1800, 1 while condemning the general ticket in the preamble 
of the law which introduced it. 

But the advantages offered by the general ticket for ensuring the 
supremacy of the party and the sovereign individuality of the state 
could be secured only on condition of the single list being regularly 
put into shape somewhere on behalf of the people which was to 
vote it ; otherwise the desired concentration could never be carried 
out over the whole state. This being so, the Congressional Caucus 
and its local agencies had only to come forward ; they undertook to 
prepare the lists, and the people accepted the duty of voting them. 
The general ticket called for the caucus, the caucus smoothed the 
way for the general ticket, and each made over to the other the 
rights of the people, the full and independent exercise of the elec- 
toral franchise. While the general ticket claimed to prevent the 
"consolidation" of the states, the caucus consolidated in each state 
power in the hands of a few. Moreover a dissentient presidential elec- 
tor having no chance of being returned under the general ticket, the 
" imperative mandate " became logically and almost spontaneously 
the rule for the electors, to the advantage of the candidates adopted 
by the Congressional Caucus. Thus in the first and in the second 
instance, voters and electors both abdicated their independence. 

Sometimes, when the electoral contest was particularly keen, 
and the issue seemed doubtful, the leaders of the caucuses, fearing 
that the defection of a few supporters might prevent these automa- 
ton-electors from securing all the popular votes necessary for invest- 
ing them with the office, got the appointment of them transferred to 
the legislatures in which they commanded a majority made up of 
themselves. It was not uncommon for the electoral system to be 
changed on the very eve of the elections, the general ticket or ap- 
pointment by the legislature being substituted, by a sort of legisla- 
tive coup d'etat, for the district system. Disregarding all principle 
and all rule, the party in power shuffled the electoral arrangements 
like a pack of cards to suit the convenience of the moment. 2 

These malpractices, as well as the chaos of electoral systems 
they brought with them, soon caused a revolt in the public con- 
science, and a movement was set on foot to demand a uniform and 

"'To give Virginia fair play," as Madison, who was the principal author of the 
measure, expressed himself in a letter to Jefferson, who gave the measure his approval. 
(/ titers and other Writings of J. Madison, 1867, II. 155). 

2 Thus for instance Massachusetts, which voted in the first three presidential elections 
on the district system, in 1800 exchanged it for appointment of the electors by the legis- 
lature, then, in 1804, decreed the general ticket, and in 1808 reverted to appointment by 
the legislature. North Carolina practised the district system down to 1804, and in 1808 
substituted for it the general ticket which, in 1812, made way for appointment by the leg- 

Rise and Fad of the Nominating Caucus 267 

really popular mode of election, on the basis of the district system. 
An amendment to the Constitution of the United States was to en- 
force it on the whole Union. Proposals in this direction had already 
been submitted on several occasions to Congress, starting in the 
year 1800, 1 but after the election of 18 12 they became more com- 
mon. In the proposals brought forward from 1813 onwards, al- 
most every year, either in the Senate or in the House of Representa- 
tives, one of the principal arguments against the general ticket was 
that it encouraged or necessitated the regrettable practice of the 
caucus. 2 It was pointed out with sorrow that the caucus, combined 
with the general ticket, had destroyed the whole economy of the 
plan devised by the authors of the Constitution for the election of 
the President. To quote one of the many speeches delivered on 
these occasions and which, by the way, throws light on the whole 
problem of the permanent party organization in its relations with 
the electoral regime : " In the choice of the chief magistrate (by 
the electors) the original primary act was to be theirs — spontaneously 
theirs. The electors were free to choose whomsoever they pleased. 
. . . How hideous the deformity of the practice ! The first step 
made in the election is by those whose interference the Constitution 
prohibits. The members of the two Houses of Congress meet in 
caucus, or convention, and there ballot for a President or Vice-Pres- 
ident of the United States. The result of their election is published 
through the Union in the name of a recommendation. This modest 
recommendation then comes before the members of the respective 
state legislatures. Where the appointment ultimately rests with 
them, no trouble whatever is given to the people. The whole busi- 
ness is disposed of without the least inconvenience to them. Where, 
in form, however, the choice of electors remains with the people, 
the patriotic members of the state legislatures, vieing with their patri- 
otic predecessors, back this draft on popular credulity with the 
weight of their endorsement. Not content with this, they benevo- 
lently point out to the people the immediate agents through whom 
the negotiation can be most safely carried on, make out a ticket of 
electors, and thus designate the individuals who, in their behalf, are 
to honor this demand on their suffrages. Sir, this whole proceed- 
ing appears to be monstrous. It must be corrected, or the character 
of this government is fundamentally changed. Already, in fact, the 

1 The first proposals were brought before the House of Representatives on March 13, 
1800, by Nicholas, then by Walker on behalf of the legislature of New York on February 
15, 1S02 ; by Stanley on behalf of the legislature of North Carolina on February 20, 1802; 
in the Senate by Bradley on April 16, 1802, etc. 

2 Annals of Congress, Thirteenth Congress, first session, speech of Pickens in the 
House of Representatives, January 3, 1814. 

268 M. Ostrojrorski 

i. i 

Chief Magistrate of the nation owes his office principally to aristo- 
cratic intrigue, cabal and management. Pre-existing bodies of men, 
and not the people, make the appointment. Such bodies, from the 
constitution of nature, are necessarily directed in their movements 
by a few leaders, whose talents, or boldness, or activity, give them 
an ascendancy over their associates. On every side these leaders 
are accessible to the assaults of corruption. I mean not, Sir, that 
vulgar species of corruption only, which is addressed to the most 
sordid of human passions, but that which finds its way to the heart, 
through the avenues which pride, ambition, vanity, personal resent- 
ment, family attachment and a thousand foibles and vices open to 
the machinations of intrigue. Their comparatively ' permanent ex- 
istence,' and concentrated situation afford the most desirable facili- 
ties for the continued operation of the sinister acts. It is not in 
nature that they should long operate in vain ; nor is it in nature that 
the individual elected by these means should not feel his dependence 
on those to whom he owes his office, or forego the practices which 
are essential to ensure its continuance, or its transmission in the de- 
sired succession. ... I dare not promise that the adoption of 
this amendment by the states will put an end to cabal, intrigue and 
corruption in the appointment of a President. No human means 
can be adequate to that end. But I believe it demonstrable that 
this amendment will deprive cabals of facility in combination, render 
intrigue less systematic, and diminish the opportunities of corrup- 
tion. . . . Faction cannot but exist, but it will be rendered toler- 
ant." ' 

But the general ticket had its ardent defenders, who dwelt with 
vehemence on the dangers which the substitution for it of the dis- 
trict system would present from the standpoint of the rights of the 
states and the balance of power between the small states and the 
large ones. 2 At the same time some of the most virulent champions 
of the general ticket admitted the serious abuses which had crept 
into the presidential election by declaring, like Randolph, that the 
appointment of electors had become "a mockery — a shadow of a 
shade." But they insisted that the district system was no remedy, 
that the mischief lay not in the electoral system, but in the practice 
of the caucus : " Divide the state into districts, will that destroy the 
caucus ? Oh, no ; the men whose interests it may be to preserve the 
monster will still protect him. He will laugh at your vain attempts, 
and again and again trampling down the weak defences of the Con- 

1 Annals, ibid., speech of Gaston, pp. 842, 843 ; see also the speeches of Gholson ; 
same sitting ; of R. King and of Harper in the Senate, March 20, 1816. 

2 Ibid., Fourteenth Congress, second session; speech of Randolph, December 18, 
1816; of Grosvenor, December 20, 1816; of Barbour in the Senate, January, 1819. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 269 

stitution, he will, as it shall please him, or rather as it shall please 
the existing Executive, make and unmake Presidents with the same 
ease as did the praetorian cohorts the masters of the Roman world. 
. . . No, Sir, let the majority of Congress cease to do evil. Let 
them scorn to be made the instrument of party, to elevate any man 
in violation of the Constitution. Let them meet no more in caucus. 
Thus, and thus only, Sir, can the object be accomplished.'' 1 The 
partisans of the district system, on their side, persisted in asserting 
that the " so objectionable practice was inseparable from any mode 
of undivided vote," that it was this which made the elector a ma- 
chine set in motion by the caucus-ticket. : 

From year to year these arguments were repeated on both sides, 
but the solution of the question made no progress. The House of 
Representatives — where the populous states, which derived addi- 
tional power from the general ticket system or from the appointment 
of the electors by the Legislature, easily commanded a majority — 
systematically rejected all proposals for amending the Constitution. 
In the Senate, where the small states were represented on the same 
footing as the large ones, the district system met with a much more 
favorable reception. Three times the amendment obtained the con- 
stitutional majority in the states' chamber, but it was never able to 
command two-thirds of the votes in the popular section of Congress. 
The fortress of the general ticket thus remained intact, and, under 
its shelter, the caucus continued its existence. 


Yet the external defences with which the general ticket encircled 
the caucus could not long protect it, for its own forces were giving 
way, the two great forces, social and political, of the leadership and 
of the categorical imperative of the party. They had been slowly 
but steadily declining almost from the beginning of the century 
which witnessed the elevation of Jefferson and the triumph of demo- 
cratic doctrines in the theories of government. The annihilation of 
the Federalists put an end to the division into parties, and Jefferson's 
famous remark, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," 
was destined shortly to represent the real state of things. The sur- 
vivors of the Federalist party gradually fused with the Republicans, 
and when Monroe came into power, the old landmarks were defini- 
tively obliterated ; the Constitution which had aroused so many 
passions and animosities now inspired every citizen with sentiments 
of admiration and adoration ; under its aegis the country was ad- 

1 Speech of Grosvenor, quoted above. 

2 Speech of Pickens, December 18, 1816. 

2 jo M. Ostrogorski 

vancing with giant strides, released from all party preoccupation ; 
" the era of good feelings " had dawned in political life. And yet 
the Congressional Caucus, in putting forward its candidates, repeated 
the old refrain which exhorted the people to rally round them to 
confront the enemy, when there was no enemy ; it invoked the 
sovereign cause of the party when the "party" no longer had any 
particular cause and represented only a memory of the past. But 
the less the ruling politicians were separated by differences on points 
of principle, the more readily did their narrow circle become a field 
for intestine strife and for intrigue. Hardly had Monroe's second 
administration begun (in 1821) when they were seized with the 
" fever of president-making." Several candidatures arose ; all the 
candidates claimed to represent the firm of the Republican " party "; 
each candidate had his friends in Congress, who intrigued and plotted 
for him, waging a secret and pitiless war on all his rivals. They 
would have been glad enough to back up their claims with prin- 
ciples, with "great principles," but no distinctive principles could 
be discovered, not even with a magnifying glass. 1 One x>f the 
candidates for the presidency, Crawford, hit upon another expedient : 
being Secretary of the Treasuiy in Monroe's administration, and 
disposing of a somewhat extensive patronage, of places and favors 
to bestow, he did not scruple to use them to secure adherents. 
These bargainings and cabals seemed to justify the complaints of 
the intervention of members of Congress in the presidential elec- 
tions, so often made in the course of the periodical debates on the 
general ticket. The prestige of the leadership could no longer 
shield the practices which were indulged in at Washington, for this 
prestige was profoundly impaired ; it had been systematically un- 
dermined for a quarter of a century by the social and economic re- 
volution which was going on in the American republic. 

The politico-social hierarchy which Puritianism had set up in New 
England, and which was the outcome of an alliance between the 
magistracy, the clergy, property and culture, was collapsing. The 
eclipse of the Federalists, who were the living image of government 
by leaders, robbed it of one of its strongest supports. The influence 
of the clergy, which had been one of the main props of the Federal- 
ists, was being thrust out of lay society. On the other side of the 
Alleghanies, on the virgin soil of the West, a new world was grow- 
ing up, free from all traditions, because it had no past ; instinct with 
equality, because its inhabitants, who were all new-comers, parvenus 

1 ' ' Could we only hit upon a few great principles and unite their support with that 
of Crawford " (one of the candidates), wrote a Senator on his side, " we should succeed 
beyond doubt. ' ' Martin Van Buren, by E. M. Shepard, p. 92. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 2 7 1 

in the elementary sense of the word, resembled each other. And 
this country of the West was advancing daily in population, in 
wealth, and in political importance. The old states were also cele- 
brating great triumphs, due to the marvellous rise of their commerce 
and their industry ; but their new prosperity acted rather as a dis- 
solvent of the old order of things, it created a new class of rich men, 
composed of successful merchants and manufacturers ; these nonveaux 
riches supplanted the old ones, without, however, taking their place 
in the esteem and the reverence of the people. The rapid growth 
of the cities helped to destroy the old social ties. At the same time 
the individual was being directly urged by men and things to shake 
off the old servitudes, or what was represented to him as such. 
The triumph of Jefferson, in 1801, without effecting a democratic 
revolution in habits, gave an extraordinary impulse to the propa- 
ganda of democratic ideas, made them the object of an almost ritual 
cult. Politicians vied with each other in repeating that the voice of 
the people is the voice of God, that before the majesty of the people 
everything should bow. Writers popularized and gave point to 
these ideas. In pamphlets composed for the farmers and the me- 
chanics they preached a crusade against " money power," banks, 
judges appointed by the government, and against all the other aris- 
tocratic institutions, the mere existence of which was an insult to the 
sovereign people. 1 

The lesson which the American citizen learnt from things was 
not less stimulating. Material comfort was increasing with unpre- 
cedented rapidity. The series of great inventions which marked the 
beginning of the century, the steamers which sped to and fro over 
the vast republic, at that time richer in large rivers than in roads, 
the natural wealth which sprang from the soil, gave each and all a 
share in the profits of the economic revolution. Endless vistas of 
activity opened before every inhabitant of the Union ; the soul of 
the American citizen swelled with pride, with the confidence of the 
man who is self-sufficing, who knows no superiors. The political 
sovereignty which was conceded to him with so much deference 
soon appeared to him as a personal chattel. And then to exercise 
his proprietary right over the commonwealth, he had no need of 
another person's intelligence ; was it necessary for his success in 
private life ? The leading citizens, therefore, who in Congress or in 
the legislature of his state, meeting in caucus, dictated to him his 
line of conduct, the choice of his representatives, became a set of 

1 Cf. W. Duane, Politics for American Farmers, being a Series of Tracts exhibiting 
the Blessings of Free Government as it is administered in the United States, compared 
with the boasted stupendous Fabric of British Mdharchy. Washington, 1807. 

272 M. Ostrogorski 

usurpers in his eyes. Jealous of their pretended superiority, he 
grew impatient of their domination. 

The small group of these trained politicians, assembled in the 
capital of the Union, was now plunged in intrigues aiming at the 
chief magistracy of the republic, and these intrigues were about to 
have their denouement in the Congressional Caucus, if the established 
precedent were followed on this occasion again. Would it be fol- 
lowed ? Would they dare to do it ? — were questions asked in va- 
rious quarters. And before long the Union became the scene of a 
violent controversy about the next meeting of the Congressional 
Caucus ; it was discussed in the press, it occupied the public meet- 
ings, the state legislatures voted resolutions upon it. One of the 
candidates for the presidency, Andrew Jackson, who was not a poli- 
tician, and who was in more than one respect a homo novus, could 
count but little on the favor of the Congressional Caucus ; so his 
electoral managers came to the conclusion that to make his success 
more certain it was indispensable to overthrow the caucus, and they 
therefore took an important part in the campaign started against it. 1 
Most of the numerous manifestations of public opinion were hostile 
to the caucus. Its advocates urged in its behalf the plea of the 
"ancient usages and discipline of party," and strove to prove that 
it was useful as a means of maintaining the harmony of the Union, 
and of counteracting the centrifugal tendencies of local competitions, 
that it represented the country as a whole, etc. But the voices 
which denounced it as the centre of an oligarchic clique, or as "a 
powerful machinery confined in the hands of a few presumptuous 
demagogues," etc., were louder. The greater part of the press was 
antagonistic to the caucus, 2 and some of the journals, with Niles's 
Register at their head, led the campaign against it with extraordinary 
vehemence. The worthy Niles wrote : " ' As my soul liveth ' I 
would rather learn that the halls of Congress were converted into 
common brothels than that caucuses of the description stated should 
be held in them. I would rather that the sovereignty of the States 
should be re -transferred to England, than that the people should be 
bound to submit to the dictates of such an assemblage. But the 
people will not succumb to office-hunters. . . . The great mass of 
the American people feel that they are able to j udge for themselves ; 

1 On this point we have the evidence, not to say the avowal, of Jackson's principal 
election agent, Major Lewis, in the Narrative which he supplied to Parton, Jackson's 
biographer {Life of Andrew Jackson, III. 21). 

! According to Niles, out of 35 Virginian journals only three were for the caucus, in 
Ohio one journal in 48 was favorable, in New York ten out of 125, in Pennsylvania three 
out of 100, in Maryland two out of twenty, in Vermont two out of thirteen {Register, 
XXVI. 99). 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 273 

they do not want a master to direct them how they shall vote." 1 
The popular meetings almost without exception condemned the 
nominations made by the caucus as a flagrant usurpation of the 
rights of the people. 2 The state legislatures were more divided. 
In the East the legislative caucuses of New York, Maine and Vir- 
ginia pronounced for the old practice of nomination by members of 
Congress, 3 but in Maryland and in some states of the young West 
the caucus was rejected with indignation by formal votes of the 
legislatures in official session. At the head of these states of the 
West was the state of Tennessee, General Jackson's native country. 
The local legislative caucus hastened, in August, 1822, more than 
two years in advance of the election, to record a vote recommend- 
ing him for the chief magistracy. Then the legislature of the state, 
acting in its official capacity, passed resolutions energetically con- 
demning the practice of the Congressional Caucus and communi- 
cated them to all the legislatures of the Union. 4 The reception 
given by these latter to the intervention of their sister of Tennessee 
was not of the warmest ; the great majority of the legislatures ab- 
stained from considering the communication ; in others, except in a 
few cases, it was received rather with disfavor. 6 Tammany Hall 

i/«</., XXI. 339. 

8 Among these many meetings should be mentioned a " numerous meeting " of citi- 
zens of Cecil County, Maryland, of September 4, 1823, and a "numerous and respect- 
able " meeting of citizens of Jefferson County, Ohio, of December 2, 1823. Their reso- 
lutions with long-winded preambles and expressing identical views present a significant 
contrast in tone and reasoning ; those of the old Maryland in the East (see Niles, XXV. 
40) bear the stamp of labored legal argument, while the language of the young state of 
the West, overflowing with enthusiasm, pays no heed to all the "whereas," and bluntly 
proclaims : " The time has now arrived when the machinations of theyhw to dictate to 
the many, however indirectly applied, will be met with becoming firmness, by a people 
jealous of their rights. . . . the only unexceptional source from which nominations can 
proceed is the people themselves. To them belongs the right of choosing ; and they 
alone can with propriety take any previous steps" (p. 4 of the report of the meeting, 
published in pamphlet form). 

3 Hammond, II. 129 ; Niles, XXIV. 139 ; XXV. 292, 370. 

*In this document the arguments against the Caucus are summed up under five 
heads, as follows : I. A caucus nomination is against the spirit of the Constitution. 2. 
It is both inexpedient and impolitic. 3. Members of Congress may become the final 
electors, and therefore ought not to prejudge the case by pledging themselves previously 
to support particular candidates. 4. It violates the equality intended to be secured by 
the Constitution to the weaker states. 5. Caucus nominations may in time (by the in- 
terference of the states) acquire the force of precedents and become authorities, and 
thereby endanger the liberties of the American people " (ibid., XXV. 137-139). 

5 See especially the message of Governor Troup of Georgia to the legislature, and 
the decision of the senate of the state of New York (Niles, XXV. 293, 323). The 
first-mentioned expressed himself somewhat harshly about the step taken by the Tennes- 
see legislature : " What precise and definite meaning the legislature of Tennessee de- 
signed to attach to the word caucus, I cannot conceive," says the governor. " It is not 
an English word — it is not to be found in our dictionary, and being an uncouth word, 

274 M. Ostrogorski 

ame out straight for the caucus, by passing a resolution : " we do 
seriously desire a congressional caucus .... as the system of caucus 
nominations by Congress and by the legislature has, heretofore, sus- 
tained us in adversity and contributed to our triumph." But in the 
popular meetings, and in most of the newspapers, the attacks on 
the caucus continued without intermission. 


In Congress the intrigues of the rival factions also continued ; 
the friends of all the candidates, excepting those of Crawford, 
resolved to take no part in the caucus, for if they attended it, they 
would be obliged, in pursuance of the non- written law of caucuses, 
to bow to its decision, were it voted by a majority of one only, and 
to give up their favorite candidates at once ; in any event, if no can- 
didate obtained a majority in the caucus, as was becoming probable 
owing to the multiplicity of candidatures, they would all issue from 
it with lowered prestige. A preliminary canvass had proved that 
two-thirds of the Republican members of the Congress refused to 
meet in caucus ; Crawford's partisans none the less persisted in con- 
vening it. By way of meeting the reproaches which were levelled 
at the caucus of being a " Jacobinical conclave," its organizers de- 
cided that it should be held in public. It took place on the 14th of 
February, 1824, in the hall of Congress. Directly the doors were 
opened an enormous crowd thronged into the galleries, but on the 
floor of the brilliantly lighted chamber the seats of the members of 
the caucus remained almost empty. At last it was ascertained that 
of two hundred and sixteen members summoned, sixty-six had re- 
sponded to the appeal. 1 Crawford obtained an almost unanimous 

and of harsh sound, I hope never will. It is not to be found in either the constitution 
or laws of Tennessee, and being a mere abstract conception, cannot become a subject of 
legislation at all. The paper evidently refers to a contemplated meeting of the members 
of Congress to influence a decision of a certain question. Can any act of the legislature 
of Tennessee affect the persons of members of Congress or others at the city of Wash- 
ington ? There it has no more jurisdiction than it has beyond sea. Members of Con- 
gress, like all other officers of government, stand in two relations to society, the one pub- 
lic, the other private — they forfeit nothing of their rights by assuming public duties. . . . 
It is thus that legislatures, on the eve of great elections, stepping aside from their legiti- 
mate province, enter the field of contention, inflame the angry passions, making conten- 
tions more fierce, and the tumult more boisterous "... 

1 Niles, who was among the spectators, published a report of the caucus in his paper: 
..." The great hall of the House of Representatives was 'brilliantly lighted up, 
and here and there a member was seated and every now and then we saw another in the 
vast distance as if seeking the sheltering shadow of a friendly column. ' Adjourn, ad- 
journ,' said several of the crowd in the gallery, perhaps loud enough to be heard in the 
caucus below, but others said ' go on,' and one added, ' let us see them commit political 
suicide, and destroy their friend.' Some wondered at the thinness of the meeting, and 
one man seemed quite distressed about it, for indeed it was a sorry sight." . . .With- 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 275 

vote, but it was that of a small minority of the party only and the 
result simply proved the inability of the caucus to effect the concen- 
tration which was its raison d'etre. Nevertheless it issued a long 
manifesto to demonstrate the necessity of persisting in the old 
practice and to warn the public of the disastrous effects likely to 
ensue from its abandonment, which would not be confined to the 
election of the President and the Vice-President, but would shatter 
the whole existing system of nominations to elective offices and ruin 
Republican ascendancy. The signatories of the manifesto insisted 
that no less a matter than the " dismemberment or the preservation 
of the party" was at stake. 1 Salvation therefore lay in the main- 
tenance at all hazards of the traditional organization of the party. 

The manifesto made no impression on public opinion, and the 
champions of the caucus soon had to withstand a great onslaught, 
which was made on them in Congress. The handle for it was given 
by the everlasting question of the electoral regime, of the general 
ticket, or the district system. A long discussion arose in the Sen- 
ate, which was transformed almost immediately into a passionate 
debate on the caucus. In the preceding discussions the caucus had 
been placed in the dock as the accomplice of the general ticket ; 
now it was its own case which came before the court. Rufus King, 
one of the survivors of the generation which had founded the repub- 
lic, opened fire with a long indictment of the " new, extraordinary, 
self-created central power, stronger than that of the Constitution,, 
which threatens to overturn the balance of power proceeding from 
its division and distribution between the states and the United 
States," to degrade the legislature, to hand over the government to 
coteries of men " regulated by a sort of freemasonry, the sign and 
password of each at once placing the initiated in full confidence and 
communion with each other in all parts of the Union," etc. 2 In sup- 
porting Rufus King's attack, other senators protested against the 
assertion that the recommendations of the caucus were but a simple 
expression of opinion of private citizens, and that they committed 
nobody. It was precisely the influence attaching to their capacity 
of members of Congress which was the foundation of the Congres- 
sional Caucus, according to its opponents. And, in fact, they added, 

out any consideration at all (of the candidatures) " the members of Congress and 
caucus were summoned by states, to give in their votes, tellers being appointed to count 
them. . . . When the proclamation was made some ' Buckingham ' in the gallery 
induced two or three persons to clap their hands, as much as to say, 'long live Caucus, ' 
but a pretty general hiss came out at nearly the same moment." {Register, XXV. 405.) 

W6 rfl, 391. 

2 Annals of Congress, Eighteenth Congress, first session, sitting of March 18, 1824, 
PP- 355-3° 2 - 

276 M. Ostrogorski 

can it be maintained that the meetings which take place in the hall 
of Congress with their chairman in the Speaker's chair and the 
officers of the House at the doors, are meetings of private persons ? 
It would be arguing like the priest who, when insulted on his way 
to church, threw off his gown exclaiming, " Lie there, divinity, 
until I punish that rascal ; " and then, " having, in his private capac- 
ity, inflicted the chastisement, resumed the character of clergyman 
and proceeded to preach up charity and forgiveness of injuries, love 
to God and good-will towards man." ' The perpetuation of the 
Congressional Caucus will open the door to the greatest abuses and 
to corruption. " It is an encroachment on the sovereignty of the 
people, the more alarming, inasmuch as it is exercised in the cor- 
rupt atmosphere of executive patronage and influence. Make me 
President, and I will make you a Minister, or Secretary, or, at all 
events, I will provide you with a good berth, suited to your wants 
if not to your capacity. . . . The President and Congress were in- 
tended by the wise framers of the Constitution to act as checks each 
upon the other, but by the system at present practised, they lose the 
benefit of this salutary provision." 2 

The defenders of the caucus, far more numerous in the Senate, 
took rather a high tone with its opponents. There was nothing, 
they declared, new-fangled in the caucus system, " it originated 
with the Revolution itself. It was the venerated S. Adams or his 
father who first suggested it. Was there any intention to recom- 
mend a man who was abhorrent to the people ? If the people are 
united in favor of another man, the recommendation would not 
weigh a feather. The old adage is that by its fruits the tree shall 
be known. What has been the result of this practice for the last 
twenty years ? Has your Constitution been violated ? Is not our 
happy situation an object of congratulation ? Is not every nation 
which is striving to break the fetters of slavery, looking to us as the 
landmark by which they are to be guided ? These are the fruits of 
this system, which has been followed, in relation to the presidential 
election, from 1800, up to the present day; which has been sus- 
tained by the people ; and which has some of the greatest names 
of the country to support it" 3 The attacks on the caucus were due 
rather to the rancor of a defeated party or to personal considera- 
tions. " It was by the caucus," said Senator Noble, " that the 
power then in the hands of Federalists was dislodged, and from my 
youthful days I said Amen ! and so I say now." 4 Developing this 

1 Annals, ibid., p. 382, speech of Hayne. 

2 Annals of Congress, Feb., pp. 412, 413, speech of Branch. 

3 Ibid., 391, 392, speech of Barbour of Virginia. 
* Ibid., 374. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 277 

idea, the president of the last caucus, Smith, declared in his turn 
that it was by the caucus that the Republican party had been 
brought into power. " The bridge which has carried me safe over, I 
call a good bridge. ... I act as a party man and have no hesitation 
in saying that I wish to keep my party in power ; that I believe the 
caucus system is the most effectual means ; and that when we cease 
to use it, we shall thereby deprive ourselves of one most powerful 
instrument. ... In a government like ours, where many of our 
great officers are elected, there must be some mode adopted whereby 
to concentrate the votes of the people. The caucus system is 
certainly the best. For the presidency, for instance, is it not rational 
to suppose that the members of Congress have better opportunities 
of knowing the character and talents of the several candidates than 
those who have never seen them and never acted with them ? How- 
ever, the caucus mode is denounced, and now let us see what is to 
be substituted." 1 

The debate lasted for three days ; more than twenty speakers 
took part in it. At last the Senate, wearied out, adjourned the dis- 
cussion sine die. But it was clear to every one that the verdict had 
been given, that the Congressional Caucus was doomed. After the 
fiasco of the last meeting of the caucus, from which two-thirds of 
the Republican members of Congress absented themselves, the great 
debate in the Senate gave it the finishing blow. " King Caucus is 
dethroned," was said on all sides. And it made no attempt to re- 
cover its sovereignty ; the animadversion which it aroused in the 
country was too great. 


As the authors of the manifesto issued on behalf of the last Con- 
gressional Caucus had foreseen, its collapse entailed that of the whole 
system of nomination for elective offices by caucuses. The legisla- 
tive caucuses in the states had also to retire before the rising demo- 
cratic tide. Their ranks had already been broken into before the 
explosion of democratic feeling which began with the third decade 
of this century. In the legislative caucuses composed only of mem- 
bers of the party in the legislature the districts in which their party 
was in a minority were left unrepresented, and yet decisions were 
taken in them which bound the party in the whole state ; sometimes, 
even, the caucus represented only the minority of the party in the 
state. To meet the complaints made on this score, the caucuses 
decided, towards the latter part of the first decade, to take in dele- 
gates elected ad hoc by the members of the party in the districts 

1 Annals of Congress, Hid. , 395-398. 

278 M. Ostrogorski 

which had no representatives in the legislature. In this way a 
popular element was introduced into the oligarchical body of the 
caucuses and with powers expressly conferred. It mattered little 
that this innovation was not due, in the first instance, to the feeling 
that the caucus was usurping the rights of the people, but to the 
fact that it did not provide the party with a materially complete 
representation. The gap was made, and it was destined to go on 
widening until the whole people could enter by it. Rhode Island 
is perhaps the first to supply an example of a "mixed" caucus, 
about the year 1 807, for the nomination of candidates to the high 
offices of the state. 1 The following year we see it introduced into 
Pennsylvania, after a campaign in which the proposal to entrust the 
nomination of the candidates to special delegates did not find much 
favor with the population, which held that the sending of delegates 
would cause "trouble and expense" and divisions in the party into 
the bargain. It was the Republican caucus which, to silence the 
rival faction, itself invited the counties represented by non-Repub- 
licans to send delegates on the basis of local representation to the 
legislature, to join with the Republican members of the legislature 
in nominating candidates for the posts of governor and lieutenant- 
governor. The first mixed caucus met on March 7, 1808, at 
Lancaster. 2 The violent strife of factions which filled the political 

1 The Development of the Nomination Convention in Rhode Island, by Neil Andrews. 
The author of this interesting study fixes the date of the first mixed caucus at 1810 ; but 
the quotations given by Mr. Andrews from the Phenix of February 14 and March 7, 
1807, referring to the " General Convention of the Democratic Republicans of the State 
of Rhode Island," seem to me to indicate that a mixed caucus was there referred to, and 
not a pu>e caucus, since further notices, which explicitly mention the participation of 
delegates, designate these gatherings by the same term, general convention, even empha- 
sizing the word general and adding: . . . " therefore desired to elect delegates." . , . 

2 " Pennsylvania Politics Early in this Century," by W. M. Meigs, in Pennsylvania 
Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. XVII., Philadelphia, 1894. According to 
Mr. J. S. Walton (article cited above on the " Nominating Conventions in Pennsyl- 
vania ") a mixed caucus for the nomination of electors was held early in 1796, while in 
1800 they were again nominated in a " pure caucus." This last statement is, without 
doubt, an error. As a matter of fact, there was no opportunity in 1800 to nominate elec- 
tors in either a pure or a mixed caucus, for the very good reason that they were appointed 
by the legislature in its official capacity, by a joint vote, as in so many other states, in 
which the legislature assumed the legal right to choose the electors. This appointment 
of the electors by the legislature of Pennsylvania in 1800, was the result of the fol- 
lowing circumstances : the law which provided for the choice of the electors by the 
people, on a general ticket, expired before the presidential election of 1800, and was not 
renewed by the legislature, nor was a new law enacted, for the two houses — the Senate 
being Federalist and the House Republican — could not agree upon a method of choosing 
the electors. The legislature adjourned without coming to any decision, and Pennsyl- 
vania seemed about to be deprived of her vote in the approaching presidential election. 
Governor McKean thereupon called an extra session of the legislature for November, 
1800, and after a good deal of squabbling the houses united upon a list of electors, seven 
of whom were selected by the Senate and eight by the House. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 279 

life of Pennsylvania produced in about ten years a new variation in 
the constitution of the bodies which made the nominations of the can- 
didates. The sharp attacks of the faction of the " Old-school Demo- 
crats " on the "intrigues of the Executive, and of his servants the 
Assemblymen," decided their rivals to summon, in 18 17, at Harris- 
burg, a popular convention of delegates from the counties, in which 
the members of the legislature were to sit only in the absence of 
special envoys from their county. The name of convention, which, 
from the very beginning, was used to designate gatherings of citi- 
zens from several places, or " general meetings," became in the 
meantime the regular appellation of the representative meetings of 
delegates. The Harrisburg convention was attended by sixty-nine 
delegates and forty-four members of the state assembly. 1 The 
" mixed caucus " thus made room for the " mixed convention," the 
principle and basis of which were of a popular nature, and to which 
the members of the legislature were admitted on a subsidiary foot- 
ing only. Very often they received a quasi-mandate to this effect : 
the populations, who did not care about choosing special delegates 
"authorized" their representatives in the legislature to sit in their 
stead ; or, again, the convention admitted them by a special vote, 
they were "voted in as members." 2 The mixed convention was 
destined to be replaced eventually by the pure convention, com- 
posed solely of popular delegates elected on each occasion ad hoc. 
This last form of convention gave a definitive and permanent form, 
in party government, to the principle and the practice of the 
authority delegated by the people, the haphazard antecedents of 
which we have seen arise at the dawn of the American Republic, 
in the conferences of delegates of the townships of the county, or of 
delegates of several counties, or even in the sporadic conventions of 
state delegates. The first pure convention was organized in Penn- 
sylvania in opposition to the first mixed convention of Harrisburg, 
and on the same day, by the rival faction, which declared before- 
hand that the Harrisburg convention was only a "mongrel caucus," 
and convened its own at Carlisle. 3 Yet the " mongrel caucus " won 
the day and it was not till 1823 that both parties adopted the sys- 
tem of pure conventions. 

In most of the other states the legislative caucus disappeared 
more slowly. In the state of New York the democratic society 
of Tammany demands, as early as 18 13, the summoning of a con- 

1 M. Carey, The Olive Branch, 1818, p. 462. — Meigs, the article just quoted. 

2 This procedure was followed in Rhode Island, in 1825. See Neil Andrews, op. cit. 
' Meigs, loc. cit.; Walton, he. cit. For the nomination of presidential electors pre- 
cedents are found of pure conventions in Pennsylvania, even before 1817. 

vol. v. — 19 

280 M. Ostrogorski 

vention of delegates for the nomination of candidates for the posts 
of governor and lieutenant-governor. But no effect is given to 
this recommendation ; the legislative caucus holds the field. The 
first mixed caucus appears in New York, as a party move, only in 
1817, and in 1824 it is still the caucus which makes the state nom- 
inations. 1 But in the course of the same year the conventions of 
delegates started by the convention of Utica, which was " called to 
put down the caucus," are permanently established. " The whole 
caucus system," as was proclaimed at this convention, " had been 
execrated deep from the hearts of the people. A tone of indigna- 
tion and disgust at it had gone forth in the land. It could no longer 
stand." 2 In Massachusetts it is only in 1823 that special delegates 
are added to the members of the legislative caucus. 3 In Rhode 
Island, where the participation of popular delegates in nominations 
made by the members of the legislature was introduced at an early 
stage, the people show no readiness to depute their delegates. In 
1824 it appears that barely a few towns responded to the appeal to 
send delegates ; that in a convention of more than seventy mem- 
bers there are not more than twelve or sixteen who have been 
really elected. 4 In several states the pure legislative caucus con- 
tinued to make the nominations of governor and lieutenant-gov- 
ernor even for some time after 1824. 

These facts, which show how great the popular inertia, the force 
of habit, or the prestige of the leadership, were in face even of the 
rising tide of democracy, explain in a concrete way how the Con- 
gressional Caucus was able, in spite of the attacks made on it, to 
hold its own for no less than a quarter of a century and wield its 
oligarchical power, with the aid of a few small groups of men scat- 
tered throughout the Union. But if democratic feeling did not at 
once become an irresistible force, if it did not advance by leaps and 
bounds, it none the less accumulated in the mind of the nation by 
a daily, hourly process, while the legislative caucus, giving birth to 
the mixed caucus and the mixed convention, was itself paving the 
way for new cadres ; only an accident was required to make the 
pent-up force explode and shatter the old ones. This accident was 
the fall of the Congressional caucus of 1824, which sheltered the 

1 Hammond, I. 437 ; II. 156. 

2 Two Speeches delivered in the New York State Convention, September, 1 824, with 
the Proceedings of the Convention, New York, 1824, p. 11. — Cf. the Autobiography of 
Thurlow Weed, Boston, 1883, p. 117, who says that the convention which met at Utica 
in August (September 24?), 1824, was the beginning of a new political era. 

'Niles, XXIII. 343. And even this mixed caucus did not make state nominations, 
but busied itself with the impending nomination for the presidency of the Union. 
*Neil Andrews, op. cit. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 281 

old leadership, which supplied it with a centre of action. And its 
collapse was all the more complete that the "party ""on which it 
leaned had long since lost all vitality, having no longer any dis- 
tinctive principles or object and aim of its own. 

It was, indeed, a double crisis : the democratic revolt was ac- 
companied and stimulated by the crisis of party, the first one of 
great moment which the American Republic had experienced. The 
democracy came in to stay, and its purpose has incontestably aided 
the development of the great commonwealth of the new world. 
The party crisis was transitory and left behind it no lasting benefit 
for the republic. The shattered parties were to form anew, but 
the disease which destroyed them, about 1824, was destined to re- 
appear and to fall upon their successors, more than once, not so 
much because of new political problems raising new differences of 
opinion, as because of the old mental habit which prevented a ready 
adaptation to the changes of time and circumstance. This habit 
was the notion of party regularity. The congressional and legisla- 
tive caucus developed and strengthened it as a microbe is developed 
in the organism. An examination of the effects of the caucus, 
made at the present time, under the perspective of by-gone years 
and events, would seem to show that the attacks directed against it 
of old were not sufficiently justified. The indictment of the con- 
gressional caucus was, undoubtedly, to a certain extent made up of 
constructive charges. The exasperation of personal and party 
strife, as well as the ardor of the democratic spirit with its exuber- 
ance of youthful vigor, had inevitably exaggerated, or at least 
anticipated, certain abuses of the caucus. In particular the alleged 
prostitution of patronage, and the bargaining between the Presidents 
and the members of Congress, which were painted in such sombre 
colors, do not seem to have presented a grave aspect, however 
justifiable may have been the apprehensions with regard to the 
future. Intrigues were not entirely absent from the proceedings of 
the caucus, but they do not appear to have given rise to actually 
corrupt practices. The personages raised to the presidency by the 
caucus were not so much its creatures as men designated before- 
hand by public opinion, or by a very considerable section of it, 
owing to their great services and their character. The untoward 
effects which the caucus really produced and which were destined 
to weigh heavily on the whole future of the republic consist in 
having established disastrous precedents and habits of mind which 
American political life has never been able to throw off; nullifying 
the scheme devised by the framers of the Constitution for the presi- 
dential election and transforming the electors into lay figures, the 

282 M. Ostrogorski 

caucus has made the chief magistracy of the Union an object of 
wire-pulling ; and to get its scheme sanctioned by the people, it 
has implanted within them a respect for party conventionalism, for 
its external badge, has drilled them into a blind acceptance of 
regular nominations. 

This last point was by no means overlooked by the antagonists 
of the Congressional Caucus, and they laid stress on it with great 
distinctness and energy. As early as at the time of the first great 
revolt against the Congressional Caucus, provoked in 1 8 1 2 by the 
followers of DeWitt Clinton, the very remarkable address issued by 
them and which has been already referred to, not only protested 
against caucus nominations as opposed to the sovereignty of the 
states and the rights of the people, which were thus usurped by an 
oligarchy, but denounced them with equal vigor as dangerous " to 
the freedom of election." " Even now," said the address, " acquies- 
cence in the regular nomination at Washington is by many considered 
as the touchstone of republicanism. The individuals or the states 
that dare to exercise the right of independent choice are denounced 
as schismatics and factionists ; and if already an innovation so recent 
and so flagrant be called the regular nomination, what will be its in- 
fluence should time and repetition give it additional sanction ? . . „ 
Should the practice become inveterate we do not hesitate to say that 
to promulgate a nomination will be to decree the election." The 
same moving chord was struck in the last campaign against the 
caucus, that of 1823-24: "The charm of a 'regular nomination 
shall no more have influence upon us ; and no candidate shall re- 
ceive our support who pretends to have any other reliance than his 
own intrinsic merits. . . . That system, in direct violation of our 
sacred federal Constitution, is to give to our members of Congress 
the power of nominating, or what amounts to the same thing under 
the binding authority of their proceedings in caucus, the power of 
electing our presidents." l 

But such were the expressions rather of a few isolated voices, 
and they were lost in the din of the more effective appeals addressed 
to popular opinion, to the prejudices of the hour, more especially to 
the solicitude for the sovereignty of the states and the independence 
of the Legislative from the Executive and his power of patronage, 
and above all to the democratic jealousy of the masses. The objects 
of these sentiments appeared to have more of concrete reality than 

1 Resolutions of a convention of Republican delegates for the several towns in the 
county of Madison, N. Y.; Niles, XXV. 130, 131, October, 1823. The resolutions of 
the legislature of Tennessee, which were sent to all the states, are equally illustrative of 
the point under discussion. 

Rise and Fall of the Nominating Caucus 283 

had the autonomy of the political conscience, and it was not ade- 
quately realized that state sovereignty and the sovereignty of the 
people would be but snares, words devoid of meaning, if " freedom 
of election" were stifled by party regularity. At the present time 
there is no longer any struggle or controversy about state sovereignty; 
the people have nothing further to fight for in the American re- 
public, democracy is acknowledged absolute master. But the cry : 
" The charm of a regular nomination shall no more have influence 
upon us, and no candidate shall receive our support who pretends 
to have any other reliance than his own intrinsic merits," this cry has 
lost nothing of its timeliness and reality. It has remained a legacy 
to be discharged by the American democracy. The efforts that the 
latter will make to pay it off and to do honor to its name will form one 
of the most moving of dramas, and one whose vicissitudes will be 
followed with bated breath by contemporaries no less than by the 
future historian.